Sunday, May 30, 2021

contextual disintegration: on Mystery Science Theater 3000


Though I'd occasionally watched and enjoyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its original run in the 1990s, I became a fan—an "MSTie"—only in the last decade. For months at a time, I'd draw, work on math problems, sleeve the contents of a coin jar, and put together IKEA furniture with a YouTube upload of a taped television broadcast running nearby. I've tuned into every online Turkey Day marathon since 2012; I've got a definite opinion on the Joel versus Mike question; I'm genuinely fascinated by the filmography of Coleman Francis; Kevin Murphy shouting SLEEEP! and Trace Beaulieu's Rocky the Flying Squirrel impression ("again?") will never not make me laugh. I love MST3K.

I've tried to pass this love onto Shirley, but to no avail. She and I have very different tastes, it's true. She reads manga that she really ought to have aged out of by now; I read superhero comics that I really ought to have aged out of by now. She likes movies I consider stupid; I like movies she finds boring. She listens to K-pop and I, uh, don't. Nevertheless, I've sold her on classic Simpsons, The X-FilesDr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and Best of the Worst. Mystery Science Theater, however, is still something she'll only watch in order to humor me, and I've taken the hint and given up trying to get her to sit through ninety-minute sub-B-movies or awkward 1950s educational films with commentary tracks.

The fact is that Mystery Science Theater has not aged well. Yes, certainly, the effectiveness of any number of quips made in the late 1980s or early 1990s depends on the viewer's familiarity with pop culture references that are now practically ancient, but that isn't the problem. For every one obscure reference in a given episode are a dozen riffs that require no arcane, period-dependent knowledge to appreciate. The style of humor isn't the problem. Nor is MST3K an instance of outsized retrospective valuation of something that wasn't very good to begin with.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a product of a particular moment in the development of media culture—created, produced, aired, and viewed in a sui generis context. And outside of that context, viewed by somebody who has no experience of it, the show just doesn't make much sense.¹

Friday, May 7, 2021

relational frame theory on prejudice; implications for anti-racism

Rene Magritte, The Psychologist (1948)


Responding to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953) from the perspective of Skinnerian behaviorism was an exercise in assessing my comprehension of Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957), which I read during the early stages of last year's lockdown. Probably the most substantial token of the exercise's success was my discovery that there were situations I couldn't give satisfactory accounts for, even after leafing through my copy of Verbal Behavior for an hour or longer and cross-referencing my notes with Science and Human Behavior (1953) and About Behaviorism (1976). I came to suspect the problem wasn't my understanding of the literature, but conceptual knots in the literature itself. The problem of reference, for instance: Skinner insists that verbal events do not refer to anything; the spoken word "chair" does not communicate a mental image of a chair, but is a conditioned response strengthened by a stimulus class. But in speaking of rule-governed behavior, he states that rules are verbal stimuli which specify contingencies—which seems to violate his own strictures against reference, and makes a functional description of rule-governed behavior a confused, onerous affair.

So I picked up Hayes et al.'s Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (2001) to see what progress the field made five decades after the publication of Verbal Behavior. Relational Frame Theory is not an easy read, but it's very exciting. At least from the perspective of a dilettante, RFT shows promise: it closely adheres to the main tenets of radical behaviorism, it starts from simple first principles which allow for the emergence of complexity, and it appears to be testable. What separates it from Verbal Behavior is its centering of derived stimulus relations, which began to be studied in the 1960s.

The core concepts of RFT are lot more difficult to synopsize than the "stimulus-response-reinforcement" of twentieth-century behaviorism, and take much of Skinner's work as a given. Rather than offer a summary here, I can point you to an excellent rundown of RFT written for the lay reader, and also a more technical overview if you'd like to chew on something with more gristle. 

For now, we'll just provide five basic points to bear in mind:

1.) RFT posits that human beings are unique among the animal kingdom in that we're capable of learning to derive relations between stimuli (without direct training) as an overarching operant. "While 16-month-old babies readily show robust forms of mutual entailment," the authors write, "even 'language-trained' chimpanzees show no such thing."¹ Deriving stimulus relations, they often point out, is a learned behavior that affects the learning process itself.

2.) RFT uses a specialized redefinition of verbal behavior as "framing events relationally." In these terms, language (which consists of "arbitrarily applicable relational responding") is an outcome of verbal behavior, not the other way around.²

3.) A relational frame isn't a thing: it is the behavior of framing events relationally (responding to events in terms of other events) under the control of particular contexts. A relational network doesn't exist outside of the organism, nor really inside of it either: it is a pattern of responding.

4.) Our environment acquires verbal functions as its constituents participate in verbal networks—or, rather, as we respond to objects and events relationally, and these "networked" responses become ingrained in our behavioral repertoires.

5.) A major component of RFT is the transformation of stimulus functions across relational frames. For instance, a hiker might read a sign at a trailhead: CAUTION: ALL THE SNAKES IN THESE WOODS ARE POISONOUS. The likely effect will be that her responses to snakes on the trail will be augmented prior to her seeing one. This is unremarkable at first glance, but no other animal on Earth (so far as we know) is capable of modifying its behavior to a stimulus class prior to direct contact with its members as a consequence of another stimulus with no nonarbitrary physical relation to it.

Now: a while back, I wrote about the problems of curbing racist sentiment through shaming tactics. Anyone who's taken behaviorism 101 understands that punishment merely displaces objectionable behavior (and only temporarily), and can result in insidious, undesired side effects. Today we'll be looking at a passage from Relational Frame Theory which explicitly examines prejudicial behavior, with worrying ramifications for the "anti-racism" discourse that has become prominent in educational and business settings over the last year. Emphases are my own.